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How hidden camera pranksters conquered Thailand's box office.
BANGKOK — As hidden-camera pranks go, this one was as devious as any Jackass stunt.
Saranae, a Bangkok prank comedy trio, swept an unknowing Thai actor into what appeared to be a junky cab. It was, in fact, a high-octane car driven by a stunt driver in disguise. After punching the meter, the driver blasted off on a pants-soiling joyride involving wheelies, roadside bombs and a head-on collision with a noodle stall.
Though the gag started off plenty cruel by American standards, it ended in a most Thai fashion. When actor Mum Jokmok finally spilled from the taxi — spewing what must be a record-breaking torrent of Thai curses per second — the pranksters emerged with clasped hands, bowing to their victim. Some nearly prostrated on the asphalt in apology.
Such is the delicate balance of Thai-style pranking, Saranae said.
The Borat-Jackass-Punk’d prank comedy genre has proven that Western moviegoers can delight in jokes at a stranger’s expense. But in Thailand and much of Asia, non-confrontation is hard-wired into the culture.
Each prank must be executed with care, said Saranae founder Willy McIntosh. Even their film posters read, in Thai, “If we didn’t love you, we wouldn’t tease you … if you weren’t laughing, we wouldn’t pick on you.”
“We’re pretty much good at heart,” said McIntosh, who is half-Thai, half-Scottish and a former soap opera heartthrob. “We don’t dispose of our feces in a Home Depot. We don’t electrocute people. We just want to see someone we really love in an extremely candid situation.”
Apparently, so do millions of Thais. After 11 years of producing television comedy, the group has released the film “Saranae Hao Peng,” Thailand’s first cinematic contribution to the prank genre. (The word “Saranae” can be loosely translated as “meddlesome.”)
Produced for only about $438,000, the film has earned upward of $3.2 million at the box office — a small miracle by Thai standards. It even beat out “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in Thai ticket sales.
In “Saranae Hao Peng,” there are no Jackass-style pain stunts, i.e. disguising male private parts as a mouse and tempting a hungry snake. There is no Borat-style ambushing of strangers, i.e. drawing racist comments out of Americans by pretending to be a Kazakh TV crew.
Saranae’s pranks are more akin to an elaborate mind game. They exhaustively research a celebrity target to draw out — and prey on — their victim’s vulnerabilities in view of well-disguised cameras.
“With Jackass, where you're just shooting a tennis ball into someone's face, you don't really need to research anything,” said Saranae member Kiattisak “Hoi” Udomnag. “We'll even investigate the person's father and mother.”
Still, Saranae has a code. Frightening celebrities is fair game. Injuring their reputation or causing them to “lose face” is mostly forbidden. (No exposing dark secrets, such as sexual proclivities, or even an embarrassing smoking habit.)
The movie’s thrills are multi-layered. Filmed over two years, it casts two good-hearted, geeky interns as the chief prank perpetrators. While it’s amusing to watch celebs get stung, there’s a richer pleasure in watching two well-raised Thai young men squirm as Saranae forces them to violate social norms. The line between pranker and prankee is often blurred.